How to Escape the Trap of Perfectionism


By Mary Jaksch

Do you suffer from perfectionism? I’m talking about the all-pervasive attitude that whatever you attempt in life must be done letter perfect with no mistakes or slip-ups. It’s a mental attitude that can make even the best life a misery. As a ‘recovering’ perfectionist, I want to share some thoughts on how to free yourself from this thought pattern. Are you a perfectionist? To find out, answer these five questions or take an online test.

  1. If you get better and better at something, do you hope to finally be perfect?
  2. Is it important to you to produce something that is flawless?
  3. If you could be perfect at something, would you feel worth more?
  4. Do you think that it’s best not to start something if it won’t end up perfect?
  5. If you end up second-best, do you see the effort as a waste of time?

Did you answer all or most of the questions with ‘yes’? If so, join the club!

The mind-set of a perfectionist is developed early on in childhood. I remember when I rushed home after school, bursting with pride because I had won a second prize at the 100m sprints , only to have my mother say, “Oh, what went wrong? Why didn’t you get the first prize?”

Have you had similar experiences?

If you listen carefully to your internal chatter, you’ll find a stock phrase that relates to your perfectionism. It may be something like “You’re just not good enough” or something similar. The way out of perfectionism is to notice your habitual inner message and to let it go each time when you become aware of it. Here is what happened to me:

My pet message was: “You should have done better.” But one day, everything changed:

I was sitting on a hillside, lazing in the evening sun. I closed my eyes for a moment and went into a daydream. Then I saw myself standing in a cemetery. In front of me was a gravestone. To my surprise I saw that it was my own grave. It said: ‘Here lies Mary Jaksch’. Then I saw a line underneath in small lettering. I bent down to read it. It said: ‘She should have done better’!

Well, I roared with laughter! That was the turning point for me. Since then I’ve learned to make mistakes with confidence. I still enjoy excelling at the things I do. But my feeling of self-worth isn’t tied up in the quality of my results. Zen practice has helped me to let go of the pressure of my own expectations – little by little.

Look at the dewdrop above. Does the dewdrop have to improve itself in order to be perfect?

Perfectionism is an unskillful thought pattern. Here is what you need to develop in order to shift this mind habit:

  1. Give yourself permission to be human;
  2. Learn to forgive yourself for mistakes;
  3. Get back on the horse immediately after falling off;
  4. Remember that an ideal is only a goal to be worked toward, not to be achieved 100 percent;
  5. Be flexible and set realistic and time frames for the achievement of a goal;
  6. Develop a sense of patience and remember that the world won’t stop if you don’t get everything done today;
  7. Be kind to yourself – at least as kind as you are to those you love;
  8. Backsliding happens to everyone; get back on track without a backward glance;
  9. Learn to accept yourself the way you are; let go ideas of how you ‘should’ be;
  10. Celebrate achievement with a healthy pride, and let go of self-deprecation or false humility;
  11. Let go of harsh judgments of your performance and to develop a kind, compassionate understanding for the hard times and obstacles;
  12. Talk to sensible friends to get a new perspective on something your anxious about;
  13. Notice and let go of your habitual negative thoughts;
  14. Laugh gently at yourself – don’t take yourself too seriously

A great way to deal with perfectionist thoughts is to imagine a little gremlin sitting on your left shoulder, whispering negative messages into your ear. Right now, imagine what that funny gremlin might look like. Whenever you notice a perfectionist thought, gently swipe your right hand over your left shoulder (as if brushing off a bit of lint). At the same time, say to the gremlin firmly, “No thanks, not now!”

Sounds bizarre? But it works. Honest.

If you suffer from perfectionism, or have some special tips about how to release yourself from it, please share a comment.


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About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.


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